Who knows where such thoughts originate! For the last twenty-four hours the melody of “There’s Wideness to God’s Mercy” has been resonating through my mind. It’s been mostly consoling, also a bit tedious. I don’t especially care for the tune – too saccharine for my spiritual proclivities:
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
Sorry, that sort of sentimentality simply doesn’t cut it for me! Composer Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) was just too 19th century British for my tastes. Though the Victorian style is off-putting I confess very much appreciating the hymn’s concluding refrain:
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?
I guess its in the air — much is being said about mercy these days. Pope Francis talks about it incessantly. Mercy certainly permeates the Lenten air we breathe. April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, is the day chosen for the celebration in Rome of the canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. Perhaps these are all factors for the “wideness of God’s mercy” being such a resonate refrain. It might just as well be a simple recognition and reluctant admission that I am in need of such “sweetness of the Lord.”
A much more appealing “resonance” comes from Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ. I vividly recall the refreshment – “plentiful redemption” – I experienced about twenty-five years ago when I came upon her ground-breaking classic, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In theory we might all agree that God is ultimately indefinable, beyond all images and words. In God’s design and given human nature, we need the Incarnation of Emmanuel, God-With-Us. But we easily get hamstrung regarding gender. God is neither male nor female! God can and needs to be spoken of in terms of either and/or both genders. Male and female are equally Imagio Dei and mutually interdependent.
She Who Is honors that truth by meticulously demonstrating that our Jewish and Christian scriptures are replete with female images of God — provided we have eyes to see and hearts open to receive! For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the word for mercy is taken from the root word for womb, rechem. In our prayers for mercy, we are actually asking God to have womb-love, to forgive us the way a mother does the child of her womb. In praying that God have mercy on us we are asking that God “mother-us” back into the fullness of life.
Few scholarly insights or theological teachings have warmed my heart and transformed my prayer as this deeper appreciation for God’s merciful love. There is a wideness to God’s mercy …and plenteous redemption!
Mercy me! Mercy me!
Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ is Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Fordham University. Her website, especially the section “Professional Influence”, is illuminating and liberating.